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Many new students fail to understand that words and ideas are the property of the people who produce them. It is, therefore, an act of theft to take these words and ideas and re-use them elsewhere without giving credit to the original author.

Stealing someone else's work in this way is called plagiarism and the consequences for those caught perpetrating this offence can range in severity from disciplinary action by a university or college, to legal action by the work's author, or another copyright holder (such as the publisher of the work). It is important, therefore, to understand what the term covers and how you can ensure that you avoid inadvertently plagiarising text books, journal articles, Internet websites, lecturers' notes or other students' work.

So what is plagiarism?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines plagiarism as "to take and use as one's own the thoughts, writings or inventions of another". University and college regulations often contain their own, more specific definitions and students are always advised to check how their institution defines the term and, if necessary, seek guidance from tutors and lecturing staff as to what they consider to be encompassed by that definition.

The reason many students struggle to avoid plagiarising the work of others is that much of their own work involves précising or paraphrasing ideas from books or articles they have read for their studies. There is a fine line between explaining or setting out someone else's thoughts in your own words and copying what they have written.

How can you avoid plagiarism?

There are a number of simple rules you can follow that will help you avoid plagiarising other people's writing, and, as a bonus, will improve the quality of your own written work. Always remember that plagiarism is the surest sign of a weak student. Someone who is copying from their sources is showing that they haven't understood or thought about the material enough to be able to re-present it in their own words. Assignments and term papers will generally attract higher marks for demonstrating understanding and critical analysis of the concepts involved, than they would for merely reciting the standard text.

The best way to demonstrate your understanding is to read a section of a book or a journal article; reflect for a moment on what the author means by it; decide which are the most important points she has made; and write a sentence or two explaining those points, mentioning the name of the original author. In the final essay, you may want to contrast the ideas of several authors and add your own evaluation and analysis. (See the student resources article on writing better essays.)

Sometimes, you will want to use some of the author's own words within your argument. Only do this sparingly and if the original words are especially powerful, striking or relevant to your argument. Whenever direct copying of someone else's work does occur in your writing, it must be clearly marked as being copied.

Longer passages should be separated from the body of your text in a way that clearly shows that the whole passage is a quotation. The source of the passage and its author should appear either at the foot of the quotation, as a footnote on the page, or as a numbered reference to a source list in a bibliography at the end of the assignment.

Shorter borrowings (a few words, or part of a sentence) can be incorporated into the body text but must be in quotation marks and attributed to the original author. It is important when borrowing someone's words in this way that you take care to copy them exactly and not to change the meaning of the original.

A worked example

The easiest way to explain all this is through examples. The following extract is from a paper in the Emerald database, "What we know about consumers' colour choices" by R P Grossman and J Z Wisenblit (Journal of Marketing Practice , vol. 5 no. 3).

"The associative learning framework provides an explanation for a variety of the effects noted in the colour research literature. Consumers learn colour associations, which lead them to then prefer certain colours for certain product categories. People in different cultures are exposed to different associations and develop colour preferences based on their own culture's associations. Marketers can use this knowledge in a number of different ways. First, they can identify the associations that consumers have formulated for their product category and attempt to match appropriate colours. This may be more effective for high involvement products, which are accompanied by social risk and may have higher levels of social conformity. With low involvement products consumers may be more risky in their colour choices and marketers may have the most opportunity to create associations of their own. This aspect of associative learning is of most importance to marketers who can choose the colours they want associated with their products and, by using associative learning mechanisms in promotional activities, can create the desired associations.

"Marketers should consider their product's colour, the color of packaging and any colours that are associated with the product in advertising, as part of their marketing strategy. These factors are well within the control of the marketer. Colour meanings can also be created by marketers by pairing colour with images in advertising that represent the qualities of the brand. Using colour as a cue can be a potentially strong association, particularly when it is unique to a particular brand. However, even when firms share a colour, consumers may develop a different set of associations based on the product because colour is context specific. Firms may desire to use colour as a point of differentiation and a trademark can help protect a brand's proprietary colour and its related associations."

Below are examples of how you might legitimately quote from this piece.

Example 1:

"Grossman and Wisenblit do not consider the use of a single colour by more than one product to be a hindrance to marketers seeking to associate their product with a particular shade.

Even when firms share a colour, consumers may develop a different set of associations based on the product because colour is context specific. Firms may desire to use color as a point of differentiation and a trademark can help protect a brand's proprietary colour and its related associations.

(Grossman and Wisenblit, 1999)

Although they stress that a stronger association will be made if that shade is unique to the brand.

Example 2:

"Because of the lower levels of personal involvement made in purchasing decisions for certain types of product, Grossman and Wisenblit suggest that consumers "may be more risky in their colour choices" (1999, p86), giving marketers more scope to build colour into the unique brand identity for such "low involvement" products."

Even where the student isn't quoting directly from the original text, the authors' ideas must be correctly attributed to them.

Example 3:

"Having discussed the ways in which marketers can take advantage of existing associations consumers may have formed between particular colours and certain product categories, Grossman and Wisenblit (1999) go on to suggest that a colour association can be incorporated into brand identity through its use in advertising and packaging."

For all these examples, the full source to be given in either a footnote or bibliography should say:

Grossman, R.P. and Wisenblit, J.Z. (1999), "What we know about consumers' colour choices", Journal of Marketing Practice: Applied Marketing Science, vol. 5 no. 3, pp 78-88.

This form of source reference is known as 'Harvard style'. It is widely used throughout the English speaking academic world and is the preferred way of listing sources in most academic publications. Your university or college may not require this exact form of reference (check with your tutors) but you should always ensure that your references give all relevant information about the sources of information you have used. These should include:

  • The name(s) of the author(s)
  • The date of publication
  • The title of the work (and, if it is an article published in a journal or collection, the title of that collection or journal – with the volume and issue number – where the article appeared)
  • The name of the publishing company or organization.

The purpose of providing such complete references is to allow anyone who reads your work to check it against the original, for instance if your meaning is ambiguous or if a tutor suspects that you've misunderstood or misrepresented an author's argument or intention. It also functions as a protection for you from any accusation of copying, plagiarising or in any other way stealing someone else's ideas, so it's well worth getting into the discipline of ensuring that you reference all your work fully – even if it sometimes feels like a chore!